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Viewpoint | IT – the key to smarter cities?

Richard Kirk

Cities are our future. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities; experts forecast that figure will rise to 80% by 2050.

With numerous cities already facing the challenges concurrent with overpopulation and urban sprawl, how can we support the influx of millions more people over the coming decades?

Pose that question to a group of civil engineers, and most will say that infrastructure is the key to building resilient, modern cities. And they’re right – to an extent. Visionary infrastructure can address some of the most pressing needs for people who live in cities: well-designed road networks, efficient public transportation, clean water, sustainable waste management, reliable electricity – the list continues.

In the very near future, however, civil engineers will not be able solve these problems alone. Historically, our sector has collaborated with architects, builders, and other industry professionals to deliver modern infrastructure. We will still rely on these partnerships going forward, but will need another seat at the table – for IT.

The old methods of civil engineering are on the way out. Simply building more and building bigger doesn’t solve the long-term demands of urbanisation; in fact, it compounds overpopulation and sprawl. To keep pace with rapid expansion, provide resilient infrastructure and prepare for climate change, we need to be building smarter. But what does it mean to be a smart city?

Smart cities use technology – particularly data points –  to efficiently plan, to react to problems in real time, to manage finite resources and to better understand systems and services. One example of a smart city initiative is flexible street lighting, which enables municipalities to supervise and control street lights based on traffic patterns. Another example is smart metering for electric grids, which would allow officials to coordinate the energy regulation system and prevent energy loss.

By harnessing the huge power of technology and available data, civil engineers can amplify infrastructure’s capability exponentially. As more cities continue to implement smart systems, those networks will feed back data to support better planning and responses through predictive trends.

The ICE recently met with taxi operator Über to discuss its Belfast plans, and quickly learned that the company is not just about taxis – it’s about providing users with a reliable and cost-effective service. Über representatives described using their technology to ease city congestion, giving a great example of dispersing a crowd after a stadium event through differential pricing determined by distance from the stadium.

Digital infrastructure can make our physical infrastructure more efficient; however, we must actively engage with IT  for this to happen. Cities need the expertise of civil engineers to properly implement infrastructure, but unless we are proactive, we will miss these opportunities. It’s time for us to join forces with the IT world and embrace new methods, new ideas, and new disciplines to create the smart cities the world needs.

  • The ICE is presenting “How Smart Is Your City?” on 23 February in the MAC, Belfast. The panel debate is part of the NI Science Festival, and will also be livestreamed. Click here to find out more
  • Richard Kirk is ICE Northern Ireland director



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